Thursday, September 10, 2015

Myanmar 2015

The Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is scheduled to hold general elections on November 8 of this year. Myanmar, like many Southeast Asian countries, has not had an easy relationship with democracy, and is currently ruled by a military-backed dictatorship, which is led by President Thein Sein. This junta is fairly unpopular amongst the population, but the election seems unlikely to be the end of its power, or the power of the military in Myanmar.

Myanmar's political history

The ethnic problem

Myanmar is a multi-ethnic nation, where many languages are spoken. This has created political problems in the country. The majority population, with about 70% of the population, is the Bamar population. There is also the Shan, who live in the east and who make up about 10% of the population, and the Karen, who make up a similar percentage and who live in the southeast.

As any Canadian politician will tell you, minority ethnic groups can be a pesky thing politically. The ethnic tensions and militant separatist movements have bedevilled Myanmarese governments, and have inhibited democratic development.

British rule

Like most of the Southeast Asian countries, Burma (it was called that then, people) was an absolute monarchy for most of its existence. Up to 1855, it was a Kingdom, but in that year it was annexed by the British and became a province of India, another British colony.

For the first years of their rule, the British were not especially enthusiastic about democracy. However, in 1923, elections were held to a Legislative Council, which, however, was still not especially democratic. There was a tax requirement for voting, which limited the electorate to 20% of the population. The number of elected seats was limited to 80 out of 103; the remaining 23 seats were appointed by the Governor, who in turn was appointed by the British Government.

This election was boycotted by the extreme nationalists, who did not want to be involved in any way with the institutions of the British government. Indeed, apathy or hostility to the institutions of the British drove turnout down to just 11%. Despite this, some nationalists were elected. It is unclear exactly who was elected, as electoral records from the time are patchy.

Similar elections were held in 1925, when turnout was increased slightly due to Legislative Council success in amending laws. Again, there are no consistent results from this election, unfortunately (if anyone has a source for results, please comment), but scattered bits of information suggest that there was a party system.

Results, or at least partial ones, are available for the 1928 election; we know that the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA, a nationalist faction) won 40 out of 59 contested seats, but we don't know where the others went, although it is clear that a pro-British party called the Golden Valley Party (named for the affluent area where its supporters lived). Turnout was once again low.

The 1932 election was apparently based around the issue of Burma's relationship with India. The GCBA came out in favour of separation, while an Anti-Separation League was formed to campaign for the continuation of union with India. Separatists won 29 seats, to 39 for the Anti-Separatists and 9 for neutrals.

However, Burma was eventually separated from India, by the Government of Burma act. Burma would have a Governor, appointed by the King. While he had broad functions in theory, this does not necessarily rule out a democratic system; certainly, Australia has a democratic system, but with theoretically broad powers given to the Governor-General. Importantly, the election was not held in all of Burma; certain indigenous tribes were 'excluded', and were directly ruled by the Governor,

The legislature of Burma was to be bicameral. There was to be a Senate of 36 members, and a House of Representatives of 132 members. Senators would serve for seven year terms, and members of the House would serve for five.

Seats in the House would be partially filled by communities. 91 seats were non-communal, 12 were for Karen MPs, 8 for Indians, 2 for Burmese of English descent, 3 for Europeans, 11 for representatives of 'Commerce and Industry' (these seats were filled by Chambers of Commerce), one seat for Rangoon University, one seat for labour and one seat for Indian labour.  The non-communal, Karen, Indian and labour seats would be elected in constituencies, while the European and Burmese of English descent used one national constituency.  In the Senate, a different electoral system was used. Out of the 36 seats, 18 would be elected by the House using the single transferable vote, while the remaining seats would be appointed by the Governor. Business in both houses would be conducted in English.

Exact voting requirements are unclear. It appears that voting requirements were more stringent in the cities, where people had to pay tax of 100 rupees in order to vote; citizens outside the cities were only required to be on the income tax rolls. Voting took place using the completely incorruptable method of giving each voter a token, which was placed in a box.

As with most elections in Burma, results are scarce, but The Times shows a seat distribution. 43 seats went to the United Party (your guess is as good as mine, maybe pro-British?), 15 seats for Ba Maw's party (an ardent nationalist), 12 seats for U Chit Hlaing's party (again, a nationalist) independents 33, and five for other parties. The ethnic groups are counted seperately. Ba Maw was commissioned as Prime Minister.

The new government did not last, though, and after the outbreak of the Second World War, Burma was invaded by the Japanese. This created something of an awkward situation for the Burmese nationalists; the British colonialists, or the Japanese? The Japanese, seeing how this conflict could be used to their advantage, granted Burma 'independence', with Ba Maw, who had been imprisoned by the British, running the government. Despite this, the Japanese were overthrown by the end of the war.

The Japanese victory, however, did not mean a return to British rule for Burma. The resistance to Japanese rule had not just been led by the British; indigenous Burmese had led resistance to the Japanese through the Anti-Facsist People's Freedom League and other Burmese nationalist organisations. During the process of decolonisation following the Second World War, the British government decided to grant Burma independence.

A constitutional assembly was elected to draw up a new constitution. The franchise was widened to all citizens over the age of 21. The assembly would have 210 members. 182 would be elected as non-communal representatives in two-member constituencies, 24 seats were reserved for representatives of the Karen, and 4 were reserved for Anglo-Burmans.

Turnout was at 49.8%, due to many opposition parties boycotting the election. Exact vote shares are (surprise!) unavailable, although we do know that the Anti-Facsist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) won 1,755,000 votes, the Communist Party won 126,000 and the Karen Youth Organisation won 109,000 votes. Out of the non-communal seats, 173 were won by the AFPFL (112 uncontested), 7 were won by the Communists, and 2 were won by independents. The Karen seats were mostly won by the Karen Youth Organisation, who won 19 seats to 5 independents, and the Anglo-Burman MPs did not have a described party affilation.

Independent Burma

The new constitution established a democratic system, with parliamentary government. The constitution was a fairly socialist document (the State was described as the 'owner of all lands', and large land holdings).

As the new nation would be a republic, a President would have to be chosen. The Constitution simply specified that the President would be elected 'by a joint sitting of the Parliament', and does not specify a specific way in which the President would be elected. The President would formally appoint a Prime Minister, but only when nominated by the Chamber of Deputies, and would appoint other ministers, but only on the advice of the Prime Minister.

In order to prevent demands for secession, it was decided that a federal system would suit Burma. However, not all of Burma was federal. Only three states were created; the Shan state, the Karen state, and the Kachin state (the Kachin are another ethnic minority group). The remaining areas of the country would be under the institutions of the national government. This concept is known as asymmetric federalism.

These states would have the specific right to secede from Burma; a two-thirds majority of that State's parliament, and then a plebiscite would be required. States would have State Councils, made up of the members of the national parliament elected from that state.

The national parliament would be bicameral. The two houses would be the Chamber of Deputies and the Chamber of Nationalities. The voting age was 18, and the age of candidacy was 21. The Constitution provided for Karens to receive seats reserved for their representatives. The Chamber of Nationalities would have 125 members, while the Chamber of Deputies would have 'as nearly as practicable twice the number of seats in the Chamber of Nationalities'.  Both houses would have terms of four years; any dissolution of the Deputies would apply to the Nationalities.

The Chamber of Nationalities had the power of veto over legislation. However, after a money bill was passed by the Deputies, the Nationalities had 21 days to either accept or reject the bill. If the Nationalities rejected the bill, they could not amend it; they could only propose changes, and if the Deputies rejected the changes, the bill would pass. If 21 days expired and the Nationalities had taken no action, the bill would be considered passed.

In the event of a conflict between the two chambers, the President would have the right to call a joint sitting. In this case, it would be likely that the Deputies majority would prevail. This is a similar device to Australia's, except that joint sittings under the Burmese constitution would be more likely.

The first election under the new constitution took place from 1951 to 1952. Once again, data on this election is shoddy. This was probably due to the fact that voting was obstructed by ethnic violence. The electoral system was single or multi-member plurality in 91 districts; an average constituency size of 2.7 seats per district.

Results for the Deputies were as follows; 199 for the AFPFL and its allies (a long, long list; the Socialist Party, the Peasants' Organisation, the Muslim Congress, and a large number of ethnic parties), 19 for the People's Democratic Front (comprising the Burmese Worker and Peasant Party, the Burma Patriotic Alliance, and the Burma Democratic Party), 6 for the Arakan National Unity Association (a small group representing the Rakhine people in the west of the country), 15 independents, and 11 seats which went unfilled. Both large groups seem to have been nominally leftist, although the Burma Democratic Party was apparently a more right-wing creation. Another important thing to notice at this point is that the AFPFL is more of an alliance

The 1956 election has more informative data. The election was to be held on April 27, although voting did not happen in 48 seats on that day; 36 because the APFPL candidates were unopposed, and 12 where violence in the districts prevented voting; in these districts, voting took place on May 22 on these days.

The AFPFL was mainly opposed by the left-wing National United Front. While there were grand plans for all the non-government parties to form an alliance, this soon disintegrated, and the only groups outside these were ethnic minority parties, some of which had split from the APFPL, and a group of nationalist parties, called the Burma National Bloc.

Voter turnout was fairly low, at 45%. The AFPFL won 47.7% of the vote, and 147 seats, while the major opposition force, the National United Front, won 30.4% and 48 seats, a better result than was expected. The pro-AFPFL Shan state party, the United Hill People's Congress, dominated in that area, while the Burma Democratic Party polled a fairly strong 2.9%, despite contesting only 23 constituencies. Of course, the impacts of the plurality system were especially strong in Burma, a nation with many regionalist parties. For example, it took 0.63% of the vote to elect a National United Front MP, but approximately half that to elect a AFPFL MP, and a third of that to elect a member from the most over-represented party, the Arakan National Unity Organisation.

The existence of such a balanced two-party system in Burma (certainly, results of that sort would not look out of place in a Western nation) is especially odd. At the time, Asian countries were new to democracy. Those that bothered usually had weird party systems. Some were effective one-party or dominant-party states (Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Singapore) and some had personalistic, weak and fragmented party systems (Thailand, South Vietnam, Indonesia). Burma at the time was roughly equivalent to India today; two large blocs (in India's case, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party) and a large number of small and ideologically weak ethnic parties.

The premiership, which up until now had been held by U Nu, a former activist for independence, passed to Ba Swe, another socialist independence activist. Nu had resigned as Premier (although he had stayed as leader of the AFPFL) in order to try and reform the party, but felt that his job was done and decided to return to the premiership after just nine months.

However, the AFPFL faced serious troubles after this. As a political group, it had traditionally been defined by what it was not and what it opposed; the British and the Japanese. However, with both of those forces gone, it was left without a common enemy to unite it, which meant that personality clashes could create serious trouble.

After a number of internal arguments, it split into two factions, the Clean AFPFL, and the Stable AFPFL. The clean faction was more Buddhist and liberal (and was led by U Nu), while the stable faction were more pro-development and secular. The stable faction was the largest, and so in order to stay in office, U Nu would need the support of parties outside the coalition. In this he was successful; he received the support of the Arakan and Shan parties, as well as some members of the National United Front, and survived a no-confidence vote 127-119.

The instability of U Nu's government meant that many of Burma's politicians felt that a new leader was needed, or else elections would have to be held; difficult, seeing as the nation's party system was very fragmented at that point. In October of 1958, General Ne Win was elected as Burma's Prime Minister, with a short mandate and the task of stabilizing the nation. While Ne Win was a military officer, and there was certainly pressure from the military to install him, it was not a coup per se.

Ne Win's government was heavily focused on efficiency. He introduced slum clearances, and led a strong offensive against Communist militias, dramatically reducing their strength. While the cabinet was mostly civilian, a few military officials were appointed to high-ranking jobs. The economy also improved, although it was already in a good position under the previous administration. While he ran the country, the Stable and Clean factions of the AFPFL competed in Parliament in the hope of winning elections scheduled for 1960.

The 1960 elections were mainly between the Clean faction, led by U Nu, and the Stable faction, led by Ba Swe. The Stable faction had campaigned on continuing the policies of the Ne Win government, which did not necessarily endear them, while the Clean faction campaigned on the issue of Buddhism; U Nu was a devout and public Buddhist, and he promised to make Buddhism the state religion of Burma if elected.

His opposition to military rule allowed him to win protest votes from voters dissatisfied with military rule, and the Clean faction's landslide victory in municipal elections showed that this was popular. The Stable faction, seeing the unpopularity of the military, made a last minute pitch to the electorate by promising to have no military officials in cabinet.  The use of religion in the campaign also provoked protests from the Stable faction, but it was all to no avail.

The result was a landslide for the Clean faction. They won 149 seats out of 250 (more with the support of a number of ethnic minorities), and 57.3% of the vote: this was more than had been won by the AFPFL in 1956. The party did especially strongly in the Karen state, where they won six seats to one for the Clean faction. The Stable faction won only 30 seats, and their leader Ba Swe was not elected to parliament. They managed 30.7% of the vote, though, not an especially weak result, but their support was spread around.

The National United Front were hammered at this election. They won only 4.8% and no seats, for a number of reasons. They had picked up protest votes in 1956, votes which went to the Clean AFPFL at this election. They were also weakened by Ne Win's campaign against the Communists. 

Elections for the Chamber of Nationalities produced a result in line with what the Upper House was meant to be about. Out of the 125 seats, 53 were won by the Clean AFPFL, 29 by the Stable AFPFL, and 43 by what are only described as 'ethnic minority' parties. Exactly what impact this would have had on the Clean faction's ability to govern is unclear, as a joint sitting would have given them 202 seats out of 375.

Following U Nu's election, he repealed a number of controversial decisions made by Ne Win, and made Buddhism the state religion, a package including a ban on cow slaughter. However, the military still had significant power in Burma, and Ne Win was not a man easily discouraged by silly setbacks like 'democracy'.


In 1962, Ne Win led a coup against the U Nu government. This was successful, with Ne Win and a number of powerful military leaders taking control of the government, and U Nu and his ministers being locked up.  Riots against the government by students were put down violently, with some students being killed. Ne Win pursued a socialist policy of nationalisations and collectivisations, known as the Burmese Way of Socialism. He formed a political party to advocate for this, the Burma Socialist Program Party, which was the only legal party in the country, and also centralised government decisions in Rangoon (now Yangon), claiming that federalism would "destroy the union".

Ne Win's government was isolationist, dictatorial, and economically ruinous. He strictly restricted foreign trade and foreign investment by nationalising imports and exports. The man himself was deeply superstitious, and he was advised by a numerologist, who among other things suggested that he move Burma to right-hand-drive, reportedly because it was felt Burma was moving too far to the left.

His government introduced a new constitution in 1974, after 12 years of riding roughshod over the previous one. It was a specifically socialist one, which established all natural resources as government property. It was also more centralised, removing most of the powers of the States and placed them in the hands of the new national unicameral legislature, called the Pyithu Hluttaw. Of course, the principles of the constitution were significantly different to how Burma was actually governed. This constitution was approved in a referendum in the same year, with a 94% yes vote on a 95% turnout (if you believe that).

Following the lections did take place under Ne Win's government, but anyone with any experience with elections under dictatorial regimes will have some idea of the democratic procedures applied to these elections. As Burma was constitutionally a one-party state, electoral competition to the Burma Socialist Program Party was nonexistent. The Party won all the seats in the nation at each one of the elections.

This repressive government lasted until 1988. By this point, Burma was an economic basketcase, with massive debt and poor conditions for citizens. Ne Win, seeing this position in 1987, decided that the thing to do would be to demonetise (effectively make valueless) the 25, 35, and 75 kyat notes without any warning, and to introduce new 45 and 90 kyat notes to replace them (reportedly because they were both evenly divisible by 9 and their digits added up to 9). Of course, not a penny of compensation was offered to the citizens, most of whom kept their savings in cash.

Students, some of whom had their tuition savings in cash, were massively pissed off, and began to riot. The government ordered that universities be closed in order to stop the protests and most of them ended. However, when the universities were reopened later in that year, the protests returned with them, especially when Burma was placed on the United Nations list of Least Developed Countries.

The students were joined by other citizens, furious at Ne Win's government. As the protests continued, some protesters were killed by a panicky and desperate military, which in turn only infuriated the protesters more. With the potential for overthrow of the government, Ne Win resigned in August 1988 as chairman of the Burma Socialist Program Party, and civilians within the party made the decision to move towards democracy as soon as possible. This was when Aung San Suu Kyi first made her entry into the political sphere, by making a speech to protesters. She was the daughter of former AFPFL leader Aung San, who many consider to be the 'father of the nation' (the Myann-pa?). It set her up to be the leader of the pro-democracy forces.

At this point, it would be very nice to say that democracy won, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected Prime Minister, and all citizens were given free ice cream and popcorn. But, sadly, there was no happy ending soon. Under the leadership of General Saw Maung, the military led a coup against the Burma Socialist Program Party, and established the State Peace and Development Council as the government. This body was also pledged to hold elections, but only after a brutal crackdown on protesters and the arrest of a number of pro-democracy politicians, including Suu Kyi (although they did rename the country Myanmar.)

Democracy! (conditions apply)

Well, you might be thinking, that's all good then! Sure, it might take a while, but democracy is back in Myanmar! 

You would certainly not be alone or unreasonable in thinking this at the time. The years 1989-1991 were full of unthinkable changes in the way nations were governed. The Soviet Union was collapsing, with most of Eastern Europe returning to democracy. Military dictatorships like South Korea and Taiwan were opening up, as were nations with long and terrible civil wars (like Cambodia) or minority rule (South Africa). In this context, it would not be especially surprising if Burma's military government was removed.

Right from the start, the military made it clear that they wanted to win the elections scheduled for 27 May 1990, and that they did not want any transition to civilian government to happen too quickly. The elections would not be to a legislature, but to a Constituent Assembly, which would be tasked with drawing up a new constitution. This would mean that the military would still be in control of the government, and could delay or reject a new constitution.

Nonetheless, the opposition saw the election as better than nothing, and they decided to contest. Many, many opposition parties were formed, but the main one was the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was still under house arrest. The military formed a political party called the National Unity Party (NUP, which was, however, not technically affilated to the State Peace and Development Council). U Nu, the former Prime Minister, formed the League for Democracy and Peace, while a number of small ethnic parties were formed, most of which were democratic and opposed to military governance.

The electoral system used was the single-member plurality system. This represented a significant gamble for the military; a majoritarian system of this sort would likely give them a big seat bonus if they won the most seats. This confidence was not entirely misplaced; significant restrictions on opposition campaigning like bans on groups of people meeting and bans on political rallies meant that the military must have felt that the opposition message would not reach the citizenry.

Parties were assigned one 15-minute radio address and a 10-minute TV address, although the text for this had to be pre-approved by the government. In this context, it would be quite a feat for any opposition party to win, especially in the crowded political context of this particular election.

However, the NLD actually managed a win, and quite a substantial one. They won 392 seats (or 79.7%) off 59.9% of the vote, a landslide victory (off turnout of 72.6%). It was a victory endorsed by most of the country, as all divisions of the country (but not the three States) gave the NLD the most seats. The NUP won just 10 seats (2%) off 21.1% of the vote. The single-member plurality system disadvantages small parties with broadly spread support, and this is certainly descriptive of the NUP, which did not win more than 30% in all but one province. Their seats were spread geographically, but they did not win any seats in the capital region of Rangoon.

The largest opposition party was actually the Shan Nations League for Democracy (SNLD), which won just 1.7% of the vote, but 23 seats (4.7%). As is fairly predictable, they won all their seats in the Shan State. Indeed, the NUP were not even the third largest party; that title was taken by the Rakhine Democratic League, which won 1.2% and 11 seats (2.2%). It was the largest party in the Rakhine region, but then only just.

None of the other parties made it into single digits. The next largest party in terms of votes (after the NLD, the NUP and the SNLD) was the United Nationalities' League for Democracy, which won 1.5%, but only a single seat. The next largest party in terms of seats was the Mon National Democratic Front (not to be confused with the Mon National Front), which represented the Mon State in the south of the nation. U Nu's party won no seats and 1.6% of the vote, despite running the most candidates outside the NUP and the NLD. There were a large number of other small ethnic parties, and an exhaustive explanation of their results would require efforts beyond what I can muster.

No matter what, though, the results of the election sent a very, very clear message to the military government; that people wanted change. At least before the election, the junta could potentially claim that they had some popular support for their policies. Not now, though.

The military, however, were not really happy with the result. This is understandable, of course; who would know that repressing voters would make you unpopular? As a result, they decided to completely ignore the election result, by tying up the Constituent Assembly, refusing to convene it, and eventually locking up senior members of the NLD (but not recent Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was already locked up). Despite some entreaties to ethnic groups, the military quickly reverted to type, increasing military expenses and crushing all dissent.

Over the next decades, Burma's military didn't do much about the nation's poverty, although they did spend quite a bit of money on the military (priorities!). The military built a new capital in Naypyidaw, in the centre of the country, and moved the capital there in 2005.

The most serious challenge to the government took place in 2007, when monks demonstrated against the reduction of petrol subsidies, a change that doubled the price of fuel and kept taxis and buses off the road. This was violently repressed by the government, and many monks (and some foreigners covering the conflict) were killed.

The military government made a decision to return to civilian rule following these protests. However, they were not about to do it quickly. A referendum on a new constitution was scheduled for May 2008; however, in that month Burma was hit by a severe cyclone (because grinding poverty and 50 years of tyranny wasn't enough), and some results were postponed.

In theory, the new Constitution was an improvement. And, to be perfectly honest, that was true; it would have been quite a feat to make the government system worse. However, it had a number of serious flaws that meant that is was unlikely to make much of a change.

It introduced a system of government in which the President was a substantial policy maker. The office of Prime Minister was removed, and instead the President would run the executive: a significant break with Myanmar's political tradition, which had been mostly inherited from Westminster. The President would be elected by a vaguely defined electoral college, comprised of members from the legislature whose numbers were weighted based on population (I think?), and would serve for five years. Terms were renewable once.

Qualifications were fairly strict; the President would have to be 45 years of age, their children and their wives (and their children's wives) had to be citizens of Myanmar, and they could not have a foreign parent. This last one has been noticed by foreign media, as it rules out Aung San Suu Kyi from being President (but not from being a Member of Parliament).

The legislature would be bicameral, similar to the one under the first post-independence constitution. The two houses were the Pyithu Hluttaw, which would be elected based on population, and the  Amyotha Hluttaw, which would represent regions equally. Both houses were directly elected (at least for the seats that were elected).

The Pyithu (I will refer to houses by their first names) is the most powerful house; it was the largest, and in the event that a conflict arose between the two houses, the Pyithu's vote would be decisive. Importantly, the defence services would nominate one-quarter of both houses, which would make it harder for a civilian democratic party to win a majority. As amendments to the Constitution would require approval from more than 75% of members of both houses, this section effectively gave the military a veto over amendments.

Relations between the President and the legislature are fairly confusing. The Ministers would apparently be appointed with the approval of the legislature, but were not responsible to it. Instead, they were responsible to the President.

The referendum to approve the new constitution resulted in a landslide Yes result, with 93.82% voting Yes off a 98% turnout. Opposition groups and foreign election observers found this unconvincing, with some claiming that the ballot papers were pre-marked and that ballot boxes were stuffed. Certainly, the idea that 98% of voters making it to the polls after a cyclone seems rather absurd. There were also claims that officials carefully watched voters to make sure that they voted the right way.

The government took little notice of this, and the constitution was introduced into law. The first elections were scheduled for November 2010 (no hurry!). In order to prepare for the elections, the incumbent government formed the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). It remains unclear whether this party's formation was actually legal; Article 26 states that civil servants are not allowed to be politicians, but clearly the party found some loophole.

The National League for Democracy did not contest the elections, as they felt that their presence would only lend credibility to a process that they felt was undemocratic. They had wanted the release of all political prisoners before the election, but this was refused after Aung San Suu Kyi was sentenced to 18 months of house arrest following American John Yettaw trespassing on her property. The National Unity Party, the previous military government party, also contested the election on a nationwide basis, although with a much more minor role than in 1990.

A number of other democratic parties were formed, most of them representative of ethnic minorities. The main nationwide democratic party was the National Democratic Force, a split from the NLD. It ran on a liberal platform, with very similar policies to those espoused by the NLD. All other parties were regionally based; the largest of these was the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), which was pro-democracy, but with a very specific focus on issues relating to the Shan State. Most other ethnic parties were similarly focused.

The results of the election were an unsurprising win for the USDP, which won 56.8% of the vote and 259 seats in the Pyithu Hluttaw. Even without the votes of the armed forces members, the party would still have a majority (this figure being 218 seats). In terms of vote, the next party down was the National Unity Party, which won 19.5% of the vote and 12 seats, but the second largest party in terms of seats was the SNLD, which won just 2.4% of the vote and 18 seats. The National Democratic Force won 7.1% of the vote, but only 8 seats, all in Rangoon. No other parties were especially major.

The election was heavily criticised by international observers, although most of them were blocked from observing. Questions were asked about the 77% turnout, especially after the New York Times wrote an article claiming that turnout was low in Rangoon. There were also claims of ballot rigging, illegal advertising, and voter intimidation.

China, a staunch ally of Myanmar, was more than willing to accept the election results, but they were relatively alone among the countries. The election was harshly condemned by the United States and the United Kingdom; President Obama himself called the election 'stolen'. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also condemned the election in strong terms, and of course the result was rejected by the NLD and the National Democratic Force.

The USDP chose Thein Sein to be President. He was considered a moderate, but it would be hard for any leader to resist the significant Western sanctions placed on the government. He met with Aung San Suu Kyi following her release from house arrest in late 2010 and liberalised election legislation. President Obama was willing to meet with him.

The first test of the liberalised election laws took place in 2012, when a number of seats that had been vacated by ministers went to by-elections. The elections were observed by Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) officials, and a number of domestic groups. Following these concessions, the NLD agreed to contest the election, and Aung San Suu Kyi made the decision to run for a seat in the south-centre of the country, an area heavily affected by the cyclone. The National Democratic Force chose to stay outside the NLD.

The by-election resulted in a landslide for the NLD. Vote results were incomplete, although it is clear that the NLD won all the 37 seats that were up in the Pyithu Hluttaw. In the Amyotha Hluttaw, there were 6 seats up for election, 4 of which were won by the NLD and one each for the SNLD and USDP (the USDP seat was only won after the disqualification of the NLD candidate). The successful and relatively fair conduct of this election led to loosening of sanctions, and led to the NLD firming their commitment to contesting the 2015 election.

This year's election

The by-elections demonstrate that the NLD has strong support. It seems highly likely that they will win a majority at the next election. However, the new government will face many challenges.

For a start, whoever forms the government will have to deal with the economy. Myanmar is still desperately poor, and needs economic assistance from the rest of the world. The lifting of sanctions that will come with a democratic government will help, but it will be difficult.

If it is indeed a NLD government, the question of party unity will come up. At the moment, the NLD is a home for opponents of the military government, and this is the issue that has kept the party together. But what will happen after democracy is restored? Will the NLD take a hegemonic position in Myanmar's politics, like the African National Congress? Will the military parties reform, and contest elections as the opposition (like South Korea)? Or will the NLD split along factional lines? 

There is also the issue of the military MPs. A high priority of the NLD will be political reform, but they will struggle to do anything. While the military MPs might not vote as a bloc, they will resist significant reform. It will be quite hard for the government to improve civilian power in Myanmar with this presence.

Finally, of course, there is religion. Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country, but it has a significant Muslim minority. The Rohingya people are an ethnic minority in the south. They live in the west of the country, and are Muslims. However, they are denied Myanmar citizenship, and many of them have left the country. Aung San Suu Kyi's silence on this particular issue has been noted by the international media, and it certainly seems to be politically motivated. It is unclear exactly what the election of a NLD government will do for the Rohingya.

It seems likely that Myanmar's situation will improve under a NLD government. However, it is unclear what impact a new government will have, and whether the NLD will be able to make much of a change. The election may be the end of the beginning of reform, but it is not the beginning of the end.